It was Mitty’s birthday, but that didn’t matter; he was shouting again. This time he was in the kitchen. His voice was loud as he yelled, “Benvenuto Cellini said you should be able to see the story of your life by the time you're forty years old!”
Pfeiffer was picking up toys in the living room. She liked to keep herself busy when they were fighting.
“Sorry, we’re not good enough.” She said.
“It has nothing to do with you.” He said.
“How can you say that? I’m your wife.”
“So what? It’s not that. It’s me. It’s what I’ve done.”
“You’re a great dad, and you have a good job. Stop being so negative.”
Mitty hated it when Pfeiffer told him to stop being negative, which she remembered when she finally glanced at his face. Mitty looked right at her; he lowered his nose and squinted, pulling his eyebrows down together.
The reasons for her husband's anger seemed infinite, but the face was always the same. She didn’t think it was fair that women were painted as emotional when it was men who couldn’t decide who they were.
Mitty responded to Pfeiffer’s “stop being negative” with more negativity, “It’s all my fault. I haven’t done anything with my life that I’m proud of. I’m forty and all of this,” He gestured to their home, “It's pointless. I have to work this crappy job and do these miserable things.”
“Then do something different,” Pfeiffer said, raising her voice.
“I can’t! I have a mortgage. I have a kid. I’m already in the rat race. I’m on the treadmill. If you get off, you die.”
Pfeiffer wanted to tell him this wasn’t the case, but she couldn’t because he was right. If he quit his job, they wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, which they split 50/50.
“What do you want to do?” She asked him.
Mitty clenched his jaw. She knew she’d made a terrible mistake.
“I can’t believe you would ever ask that.” He snarled.
“What? I want to be a writer. What do you think I’m doing every
night? I’m supposed to be a writer.”
“I know that,” She said, trying to backtrack.
“My life sucks.”
“You can change it.” She said.
“How? How am I going to? I’m trapped!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Mitty knew how she’d interpret them, and yet, he let them linger. He wanted to see their effect and wondered if this was the way out of his average life. You see, Mitty wanted to leave his wife and daughter. He wanted to be a writer, and he’d convinced himself that he’d have to abandon his family to do it.
He’d read interviews from authors like Cyril Connolly and Richard Ford, who argued that writers shouldn’t have families because they were an excuse to fail. Mitty kept thinking of them and that Cellini line. The life he’d lived was so pathetic. Mitty was forty and hated what his story told.
Pfeiffer’s heart wilted when she heard Mitty say “trapped.” While looking into his mean eyes, she thought to herself, “This is how people fall out of love, one fight after the other.”
Pfeiffer had heard stories about Mitty’s abusive father from her mother-in-law, who also showed her pictures of the man. When Mitty and Pfeiffer first started dating, she didn’t think he resembled his dad at all. Now that Mitty was older, she could see parts of his father emerging.
Against her normal behavior, perhaps fatigued from Mitty’s barrage of despair, she said to him, “Then leave. If you’re trapped, then leave.”
They were both astonished by her words.
Then, their daughter Maisie flung open the front door. She was panting and sweaty. Kelly, her neighbor-friend, was right behind her.
“Dad, can Kelly eat over?”
Before Mitty could say no, Pfeiffer jumped in, “Yes, honey, that’s fine. I’ll get another plate.”
Pfeiffer wanted the conversation with Mitty to end, and Kelly’s addition to dinner would ensure reprieve.
She expected Mitty to continue the fight at bedtime, but he avoided her by staying downstairs and writing. Pfeiffer wasn’t sure what his silence meant, or if she liked the distance Mitty was creating between them. Their fights were beginning to feel like Russian roulette. She hoped he’d apologize when he was done writing, but he didn’t.
Within a week, Mitty was looking at one-bedroom apartments online. It was like that for him; as soon as he committed to an idea, he took action. He also shaved his head. He did it because of Rob Chambers. Rob was a professional soccer player and former elementary school peer. Rob always had a shaved head, and Mitty thought it looked badass like he was too busy with his craft to worry about grooming. He’d also seen Brad Pitt and Tom Brady with a shaved head. Maybe having a shaved head was what it took to get anywhere in life. Mitty was quick to try unproven life hacks like this. Once, for a month, he only took cold showers. Another time, he refused to bring his cell phone into the bedroom. Instead, he left it on the floor just outside of the door. Unsurprisingly, none of these things made him a better writer.
Mitty disliked the moles on his head, which he only discovered after he’d shaved off all of his hair. He was beginning to realize life was like that; he never really got what he hoped for. Still, he was committed to his new appearance and told Pfeiffer only half-joking, “This is the new me.”
It wasn’t the first time that Pfeiffer had met a new version of her husband. He was always shapeshifting. She didn’t think he looked particularly good with a shaved head, but she did what a partner is supposed to do in these situations and lied.
Pfeiffer thought of her parent's marriage; they were still together. Her grandparents were too. Once in college at Chico State, when Pfeiffer needed to be consoled after a bad breakup, her mother told her that a woman needed to be supportive of her man, “Men are just like babies, “ She said, “You have to take care of them. Treat a man like a child, and you’ll keep him happy for life.”
To her, it seemed like so much work, but then again, all of the marriage counseling blogs she was reading said keeping a marriage alive took significant effort.
Pfeiffer offered to do the taxes again that year. She was getting better at doing household tasks like this. Since Mitty refused to prioritize them, she had no other choice. She told him she needed his W-2 and his car’s proof of registration, and she’d do the rest, “Just get them to me by the 20th, I’ll take care of it.”
“Cool,” He said.
As the month wore on, Pfeiffer's nights started to feel lonely. One of the blogs she read said that couples who fell asleep at the same time were happier than ones who didn’t. She found herself wishing for Mitty to come to bed; maybe that would stop her from feeling like their marriage was falling apart.
Mitty was constantly thinking about life without his wife and kid. He fantasied about all the time he’d have to write, read, exercise, and go to coffee shops. The fantasy was the fuel that helped him believe getting a divorce was essential to his writing career.
Also, some moments contributed to his assuredness that his family was better off without him. For example, one night at dinner, he wanted to read poetry, but Maisie was fidgeting, and lots of rice was falling on the floor. It irritated him, so he snapped at her, “Stop moving around! It’s freaking annoying.”
He felt guilty about doing it but couldn’t bring himself to say sorry, even when the six-year-old sulked to the corner of the house where she often hid when she was sad. He thought to himself, “There’s no point in staying. I’m not a good dad anyway.”
At night, Mitty would go downstairs and watch Hemingway or Bukowski interviews on Youtube. Sometimes, he’d watch stand-up comedy. Occasionally, he would write. He reasoned that he wasn’t writing all the time because he had nothing to write about; he was living a dull, monotonous life. However, once he moved out, he was certain his new life would bring him plenty of inspiration. He liked thinking about the days in the future when he would have all the time in the world to write. The only thing that stood in the way of that future was telling his wife he wanted a divorce.
Pfeiffer banged on the desk when she sat down on the evening of the 20th to do taxes and realized Mitty never sent the documents she requested. Maisie was already sleeping, but if she hadn’t been, Pfeiffer would have screamed. She texted Mitty for the fourth time in two hours. The last time she heard from him was in the afternoon when he texted that he wouldn’t be around for dinner because he had a “work thing.”
She felt powerless over her life; after all, she couldn’t even do her taxes without his documents. Being married was like that; it was a partnership, it took effort from both sides. She felt like she was playing by herself and smashed her fists on the desk out of frustration.
A couple of hours passed, and she still didn’t hear from Mitty. Though she was upset, she began to worry that something happened to him. She tried to see his location on her iPhone, but he must have turned off her ability to do so because it didn’t work. She thought of calling the police, but that sounded like something a crazy woman would do. Instead, she sat up in bed, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home.
It was almost midnight when she heard the garage door open. The relief in knowing that Mitty was okay was quickly replaced by her anger from earlier. It’s impressive how long feelings can simmer beneath the surface.
In the few minutes it took for Mitty to walk into the room, she thought of a dozen different things that they needed to talk about; the distance he was putting between them; his lack of respect for her time; her desire to have a partner fall asleep by her side, etc.
Mitty walked into the room with saran wrap around his arm. A couple of pieces of white masking tape were holding it in place.
“What’s wrong with your arm?” She asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with it. I got a tattoo.” He said.
This was shocking news. Mitty never once said he wanted a tattoo. In fact, she remembered when they first started dating, they’d agreed tattoos were a turn-off.
“Why did you get a tattoo?” She asked.
“Because I wanted one.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were getting one?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why did you say you had a work thing?”
“I guess because I knew if I told you I was getting a tattoo, you’d freak out like this.”
“I’m not freaking out,” She said, “But I’m pissed you didn’t send me the tax stuff. I reminded you three times.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“But I wanted it today.”
“Well, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Mitty was unraveling the tape from around his arm so that he could take off the saran wrap. He walked away from Pfeiffer into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. He had a shaved head and a tattoo. Even to himself, he looked like a new person.
From the bedroom, Pfeiffer asked.
“What is it?”
Mitty looked at his tattoo in the mirror and smirked. He was going to like what happened next.
“It’s a bird escaping its cage.” He said.
He walked back into the bedroom and showed her.
“Why did you get that?” She asked.
“I liked it.”
“What does it mean?”
“You don’t like it?” He asked.
“It just seems strange to get that imagery; a bird breaking free from a cage. What are you trying to say?”
Mitty started to laugh. She felt as though he were laughing at her.
“Do all writers need to have tattoos?” She asked him, knowing the comment would get under his skin.
“Why would you say that?” He asked.
“Why would you get that?”
They stared at each other, waiting for the other to answer, but neither of them spoke. Eventually, Mitty walked away and shut the door to the bathroom.
That night, he went to bed at the same time as Pfeiffer. It didn’t give her the security she thought it would.
By the end of the month, the tattoo was healed, and Mitty had secretly signed a lease to a one-bedroom apartment in Hayward. The only thing left to do was to tell Pfeiffer he wanted a divorce. He wasn’t sure how she’d react, but he hoped that it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise. In his mind, he’d been giving her signs throughout the month that this was coming. He found comfort in knowing that even if she freaked out, he would be okay because he had the apartment.
Of course, Pfeiffer had no idea that Mitty was going to ask for a divorce. When she saw him walk through the doors without Maisie that afternoon, she was more worried about who was watching their daughter than the reason he wasn’t with her. Mitty told her that Suzy’s parents were watching her and not to worry.
But Pfeiffer was worried. She saw something looming in Mitty’s conscience; he had energy radiating from him that she hadn’t felt before.
After a couple of moments, he said what he had to, “I don’t want to be married anymore.”
Pfeiffer was speechless. In all the versions of her life that she played out in her imagination, divorce was never a part of them. Divorce was something that other families did, not hers. She was supposed to stay married, like her parents.
“What are you saying?” She asked.
“I want a divorce.”
She was astonished, just like she had been on his birthday, when she suggested that he leave.
As silence filled the living room, Mitty thought, “I want a divorce. That’s a good first line for a story.”
Then, Mitty’s phone rang, shattering the silence between them.
“Please don’t pick up the phone. Not now.” Pfeiffer begged, “We need to talk.”
“I have to. It’s Suzy’s dad.”
Within minutes they were out of the house and on the way to the hospital. Maisie had hit her head.
On the car ride over, the only topic of conversation was their daughter. They kept telling each other how they hoped she would be okay. They didn’t say a word about the divorce.
Maisie was in a shared hospital room. It had four beds that were separated by large curtains. She had a bandage over her swollen right eye and was resting. The doctor explained to them that she had a grade 3 concussion, which meant she had to stay overnight. Tears dropped from Pfeiffer’s eyes as she stroked her daughter's hair and told her, “I love you so much, honey. You’re going to be okay.”
Mitty was getting emotional too.
The doctor left them to care for another patient in the room. Even though curtains only separated them, they didn’t hear the doctor's words.
Pfeiffer sat on the edge of the bed, holding Maisie’s hand and stroking her hair in the gentlest way possible. Mitty got closer and, without thinking, put his arm around Pfeiffer. It was the first time they’d touched the whole month. He didn’t want to let go.
Pfeiffer’s tears increased as Mitty held her. He was trying to comfort her, but his words couldn’t be unsaid. She knew that her husband wanted out; their daughter’s concussion didn’t change that. She thought of his bird tattoo and how long it took him to give her his tax forms. Maybe her mom was right about men being children. She scooted away from him.
“Can you go home and get some things for us?” She said, gesturing to Maisie and herself, “I’ll spend the night here.”
“Are you sure? I can stay the night.” He said.
“No, it’s fine. Just grab the things; I’ll text you. Bring them back, and then you can go home.”
Mitty thought about the word “home.” She had no idea about his apartment. He felt guilty for purchasing it.
“Okay,” he said, then he kissed Maisie on the forehead and left.
Walking to his car in the parking lot, he realized he would have the night to himself.
He thought, “I could write.”
But he was no longer sure that’s what he was supposed to do.